Sunday Stories: “Heech”


by Isobel Atacus

She first came across this word, this word heech, in the British Museum. Where she’d sat on one of the silver stools and gotten out a new notebook and pen and then, unable to write anything after all, gathered her belongings with a gesture that was neither understated, nor a flourish, but more a sudden uprising of coat, scarf, bag, pen and book. She strode towards the back entrance desperate for the outside air, and a burst of gold caught her eye. Bronze mesh cage, within it a tangled shape weaving shimmered out of the top, gold. Heech in a cage. Heech. Persian for ‘nothing’, according to the text beneath. The artist was one she’d never heard of, Iranian, Parviz Tanavoli. She would later google his name, scroll down through other works and add him to the list of artists she pretended to know when standing around other creative or intellectual types, awkwardly holding a glass and not knowing what to do with her other hand – o yes, I came across his work years ago…blushing rose and hoping no one would find her out.

The work, the artist, both would settle into a distant resonant throbbing that would fade, fade, really quite quickly – o yes – came across – what was his name…

But nothing in a cage, that nothing, caged, this would stick, grow, gather momentum so that that day, happening through the British Museum, hovering over a table to write nothing, that day would figure ever more prominent in her memory. That cage. Such as now, here, in this room that isn’t a room, still somehow enclosed. Out in the hall.

Out in the hall she gazes round at the pictures hung too neatly by her mother, pastel shades create an ambience, a word her mother likes to use, attempt an accent, no hint of deprecation. Instead, belief this makes her cultural elite. Her mother likes to be thought of as bourgeois, as cultural elite. There are certain cafés she likes to go to that have convoluted means of making tea, and if someone asks if they can hang up her coat, so much the better. Her mother likes to use a fork to eat cake, take pictures of her food with her phone latest model to share with friends. Everything can be thought of as bourgeois: the little collection of postcards from la rive gauche, her insistence on calling it la rive gauche, her brush and mirror set, dressing table, fairy lights, special pots of granola and coconut nectar and teapots from the Tate, calling her child Marguerite…the trappings of too many novels and arthouse cult TV. And perhaps it doesn’t matter anyway.

Marguerite likes the pictures, or liked them as a child and now can’t decide if they are nice, if they fit in with her own aesthetic, or not. If they are quite the opposite – she wonders, frequently, what do other people think, coming at them with fresh eyes? And perhaps it doesn’t matter anyway. They provide ambience, as she stands in the hall – or landing, her mother would correct. As she stands in the hall – or landing – her hand on the key in the door. Having just turned it. Click.

There’s a mirror at the end of the corridor – hall – landing – and she stares at herself. Her small face. Her hair swept back to straggly end refusing to cut it despite split ends, despite the annoyance it causes when she flips her head from side to side crossing the road, or when she goes swimming, however rarely. Her pale arms, hand on the lock. Click.

It is 8:30am.

It is 8:30am. Behind the locked door her brother lies, recumbent, hairy, dead to the world. Staggering in at 5am post nightclub shift shaking cocktails standing firm against the rolling drunks who stammer ‘just another’, eyes sinking into back of skull his answer always, still, a shake of head reluctant ‘sorry’. Despite their plaintive wails. Despite their persistence, rising aggression, pouting lips, petulant shrugs as his head moves back and forth.

Now he lies face down with smoker’s breath and pillow creases outlined on his cheek, brow furrowed in vaguely fitful sleep. To wake and contemplate, finger fishing around his navel scooping out fluff to sniff and wonder. Until tonight when he must do it all again. For now, to sleep. So he is on his bed face down.

So he is on his bed face down and she is in the hall upright with hand on lock. Click. The mirror only witness to the morning escapade. Heech in a cage. This act both nothing and something of incredible significance. Gold.

She started locking the door thirteen days ago. No reason behind it, nothing to justify either to herself or anyone else. I started locking the door of my brother’s room thirteen days ago, awkwardly holding a glass and not knowing what to do with the other hand… Wondering vaguely as she did so if she should be masturbating (is this what people do?), if she should be turned on by the hall and the mirror and the door in front of her shutting her out and her hand on the lock and her straggly hair and small, small face. Not knowing what to do with the other hand… Yet she felt distinctly un-turned on by this repeated action, even though she kept checking every day, am I turned on by this, just to make sure. Searching for justification for caging in her brother each morning as he lay face down, hairy, breathing deeply, vaguely fitful sleep. But she liked the feel of the key in her hand as it turned. She liked the feel of the click, the click of the lock that brought with it such control. Such control. Perhaps this was it, enough. Enough to make her start. Control. The sound of a click. Something to do. And anyway.

And anyway, her mother wouldn’t be back until 1pm. By which time the door unfastened once again by her hand. He would sleep until she or mother called him for lunch. By which time the door unfastened once again by her hand.

It gave a little structure to these endless days of summer stretching on and on – I must be home by lunch so I can unlock the door. Before mother gets home. A pressing feeling in her stomach that grew in urgency with each minute that passed after clock striking midday. Each morning promises herself it will be the last time. I am not turned on by this. Brother recumbent, sleeps on. She stands. Today will be the last time. Glancing sideways into the mirror, blank face keeping her secret. The ambience of the hallway pastel shades surround.

Today will be the last time.

Heech in a cage.

Nothing in a cage.

Her brother in a cage

Her brother in his room.

Her in the hallway.

Her in a cage.



Isobel Atacus is a London-based artist and writer. Work has recently appeared in Mad Swirl, and her first novel is shortly to be published. Contact at

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